Levi Strauss imprints on Valencia

All photos by Caitlin Donohue

It would appear they got in under the radar. After all, the Mission Mission blog post on the Levi's pop-up store on Valencia didn't hit until today, stirring up an American Apparel-sized storm of anti-capitalist harrumphs and hurrahs. There was even a press embargo on mentioning details about the space until yesterday.

But here it was, and here I was getting a tour of the store with various superlatively attractive employees, who were quick to remind me that the space is “not just a multi-national corporation opening up a store in a community.”

This according to Josh Katz, whose official title at Levi's is Head of Collaborations, Partnerships, and Creative Concepts. I prefer to refer to him more succinctly as "hot man with shockingly blue eyes in striped cardigan and tie made of interesting material who had the controversial idea of opening up a corporate entity in the thick of indie-rama Valencia land."

But where the devil were the clothes? Katz chuckles, adorably. “It's a good question – we make clothes, don't we?” Yes. But apparently that's not all that sets Levi's heart aflame. “Whether it's providing products or not, it's important to create physical manifestations of the brand,” says Katz. 

The company is pushing its association with American hard work – its 1900s Valencia Street denim factory, after all, was one of the first sites of workclothes manufacturing. Riffing on this image of industrial creativity, its stocked the 17th and Valencia storefront with all manners of vintage letterpresses and printers. Although there's a rack of work clothes up for sale, the space is not meant so much as a point of purchase as much as a branded community art "hub." Every Sunday, budding local artists can screenprint on free cardstock, churn out a zine on the cheerfully supplied Xerox machine, even cobble together a rack of words that a friendly staffer (some of them straight from their day gigs at the Center for the Book) will stick through the ancient letterpress on hand. As part of  a tie-in with its Go Forth ad campaign, the company's planning another photography based pop up space in New York, due to open Sept 18.

You'd be hard pressed (ha!) to find a more attractive print shop staff

“This allows us to sustain an engagement with the community. We've maintained strong relationships with every aspect of San Francisco,” Katz tells me. Knee jerk reaction: scoff scoff scoff. But it gets “tricky,” as Mission Mission's Ariel Dovas puts it, when you consider that the “printshop” is providing the Mission use of some pretty serious art equipment and space free of charge, and that those are both hot commodities in this neck of the woods. Plus, Katz and the company have scheduled workshops and other partnerships with a shockingly legitimate lineup of Bay area creative types, from Aaron Rose (who as far as I can tell is not really a Bay Area creative type, but I suppose that's getting hung up on semantics) and Alice Waters to Craig Newmark, the most famous list maker in the world, and a slew of nonprofits who you wouldn't think would throw in their lot with an evil company set to commodify and pablumize the Mission.

Right? I called Courtney Fink, who is the executive director of Southern Exposure, and whose community art-funding organization is one of the three to benefit from the proceeds generated at 580 Valencia (the other two are Plaza Adelante and the Women's Building). I asked her if she was surprised that Levi's sought out such locally rooted groups as partners for this venture. “I guess I'm not surprised,” she told me. “I feel like it's a strategy that a lot of big companies are taking, forming these creative partnerships to support what they're doing.” Fink said that Levi's was backing Southern Exposure's new postcard guide to the 45 art venues in the neighborhood, which they had been unsure where to find funding for. “As long as we can maintain our integrity, we'll do what we can,” she said, pragmatically. Fink also noted that Levi's had refurbished a building that otherwise might have sat empty, though she could see how there'd be numerous different opinions on their presence in the neighborhood. 

Of course, not everyone's stoked. I got an email from one Elle Ko, who is launching a guerrilla assault on this corporate infiltration. Quoth she: “that evening i decided to graffiti the storefront. i wrote 'SCAM', 'BUY USED', and other similar wording on the storefront. the graffiti was promptly removed the next morning.  the following evening i wrote 'UNEMPLOYED? KEEP SHOPPING' on the pavement in front of the entrance of the building, also 'LOCAL FARTISTS' [author's note: double ha!], 'PLAGUE' and a large red X across the door. i then dumped a pile of old clothes and rags in front of the entrance." She says her actions led to the installation of a round-the-clock security guard at the site.

“Levi's has been on Valencia for over 100 years,” Katz told me as we moseyed about his new to-do, bustling with a whole team of fresh-faced creative-type staffers. The company maintained a presence at Valencia and Brosnan (now the site of the SF Friends School) up until 2002. But to its assertion that they've maintained relationships with the area, I offer a hearty, resounding, whatever. Levi Strauss moved those jobs to countries with cheaper labor forces awhile ago. They haven't had a single factory in the US, in fact, since 2003. But their corporate offices are still in the city...

Let's go printin' now, everyone is learnin' how

I'm hollering at you though, Elle -- all that talk about “American workmanship” and “community values” is a little problematic coming from a company that moved all their production not only out of the neighborhood and metro area, but our entire country, seven years ago. But hell, who am I to harsh on a good time? Not to mention a powerful benefactor for organizations that kick ass in our neighborhoods. So if you're down, go and try out the toys, check out the admittedly cool workshops they've got coming. You might as well get some enjoyment out of it. It's like digging the aesthetics of a cool-looking national ad campaign. Oh wait, that's what it is.


Levi's Workshop

public events and Sunday studio hours through Aug 28, free

580 Valencia, SF



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